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The Good German of China
by Birgit Schrumpf

In December 1937 the Nanking Massacre started and lasted for about eight weeks. According to historian’s estimates more than 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war were murdered by the Japanese soldiers, and women and children were raped. Witnesses reported that thousands of young Chinese, soldiers as well as civilians, were driven to the outskirts of the city, gunned down with machine guns, beheaded, or covered with gasoline and burned alive.

Some of the foreigners, businessmen, and missionaries who stayed behind formed the International Committee for the safety of Nanking. The German John Rabe, company manager for Siemens China Co. since 1931, was elected chairman of the committee. He was probably chosen because as a German and a member of the Nazi party he could exert more influence on the Japanese. John Rabe succeeded in establishing a Safety Zone of about four square kilometres, organizing storage for additional provisions and medical supplies. 600 civilians camped in Rabe’s courtyard and he personally protected women and children who were threatened by Japanese soldiers. Through the courage and acts of selfless heroism by this group of foreigners – endangering their own lives – more than 250,000 people could be rescued. During all this time John Rabe kept a meticulous diary.

Most of the journalists, foreigners, and diplomats left the encircled city of Nanking. The reporters who had stayed in the city were strictly censored by the Japanese armed forces, although many of them reported about the atrocities after the war.

In February 1938 Siemens ordered Rabe to return to Berlin. He wrote a letter to Hitler pointing out the war crimes of the Japanese and held lectures talking about the atrocities he had witnessed. Hitler’s Gestapo arrested him, destroyed his photographs and all films of the massacre. Siemens degraded him from his position as company director. After the war, his request to be denazified was denied by the British at first. However, it was granted at the end, based on his humanitarian actions. Out of gratitude, the Chinese government paid him a small pension until his death. Impoverished and forgotten John Rabe died in Berlin on January 5, 1950, from a stroke.  

In 1997 the Chinese government had Rabe’s coffin moved to the Nanking Massacre Momerial Hall in Nanking. It wasn’t until 2003 that Germany paid tribute to Rabe’s humanitarian deeds.

The American journalist Iris Chang was the first to bring the incidents in Nanking to the attention of the general public. In 1997 she published her book “The Rape of Nanjing. The Forgotten Holocaus of World War II”. Another excellent historical source on the Nanking Massacre is the extensive diary of John Rabe, which was published at the end of 1996. His diaries had come to light after 60 years, safely protected by his grandson.

According to Harvard-Professor William C. Kirby, “Mr. Rabe was among those who helped the world know about Nanjing; later on, his information, as reported by others, would be brought to the post-war International Military Tribunal of the Far East. As a result the broad story of the Nanjing massacres became well known, and is now included in all standard histories of this period, except, unfortunately, in Japan.” The incidents in Nanking are considered to be the darkest chapter in Japanese history, which still is a burden on Japanese and Chinese relationships. To this day the Japanese government has not officially acknowledged the scale of the Nanking massacre.

When director Florian Gallenberger read of John Rabe’s experiences in China he immediately wanted to film the material. He left for China (in March 2006) without telling of his intentions, wanting to see for himself the location where the action happened in 1937/1938. He wanted to get to know the context, the country and the people. Various difficulties were to overcome, like permission for filming which was at first denied by the Communist Party. Exactly 70 years after the Nanking massacre the crew started shooting the film John Rabe and was screened at the Berlinale 2009.

The review of the film John Rabe can be read online at KinoCritics or